THE FIRST TIME I laid eyes on Bruce Kent (then Mgr Bruce Kent, indefatigable head of CND and the media's favourite moral pundit) was in the swimming baths on an estate in east London. The face was instantly recognisable; the body, that of a sporty man in his 40s. In that incongruous setting splashing swimmers, chlorinated water and foggedup windows the famed prelate emanated a strong, masculine presence, a charisma at once spiritual and very much of this earth. An Anglosaxon echo, in fact, of John Paul II, whom I had just seen in Rome at a youth Mass at St Peter's.
That was 1986. Less than a year later, Bruce Kent resigned from the priesthood; he married; soon the Cold War officially ended, and CND disbanded. A priest friend said that the hierarchy had heaved a collective sigh of relief when Kent handed in his resignation — "too much of a loose cannon, was the general impression". A very loud cannon indeed.
I had, in truth, half-forgotten about the erstwhile Monsignor, relegated him to the "whatever happened to..." drawer in our over-cluttered world of soundbite celebs. Then last month, when the Guardian asked its readers to nominate a "President" to head a hypothetical New Republic, the number one choice surprised us all: "Bruce Kent" for his integrity and dedication to justice.
"I'm delighted! " Over the telephone, Bruce Kent sounded as taken aback as I had been. I asked the "President" if I could dust off our acquaintance, and he came to our offices to explain what he would do if he truly were in charge of a new republic.
After all these years, the face is still the same, though the combative spirit that sharpened those blue eyes has softened into something more akin to melancholy. The fight for justice carries on: the voice may not be carried by Radio 4 with the same frequency, does not reach us from the television screen, but it has not been silenced: schools, town halls, community centres up and down the country still hear Bruce Kent's empassioned speeches on behalf of Pax Christi, on behalf of the United Nations, itgainst nuclear arms. FolloWing his failure to win 'a seat (Oxford West, which he lost to fellow Catholic John Patten) at the last General Election, Kent has just launched GOTT, a group that aims to dislodge the Tories in those constituencies where they are only marginally ahead of the Labour/Lib Dem candidates by promoting a coalition of Lab/Lib voters. So, about that Republic... "The pillars would be the obvious ones: justice within the community; concern for freedom; care for the less fortunate; internationalism."
A crucial feature of his presidency would be accessibility the man in the street must feel that the President is not one of them. "There has to be an 'open house' policy, so that a two-way flow of information is established. I'd want to be an underground-taking President, one who everyone saw on walk-abouts. The person who comes closest to having established that kind of presidency is Mary Robinson in Ireland. I'm a great fan."
He is warming to his theme, becoming empassioned: here's a man who palpably cares about what constitutes the Good Society, the Good Citizen, the Good Shepherds of the Church.
On the issue of Church and State, Kent is adamant: in his Republic, there would be no Church-State connection. "The Church is a separate society from the state, though they interlock." Would the Church play a different role under his presidency? As a former priest, Kent is reluctant to come down too hard on the institution that once employed him, but it is clear that in his view the Church falls short of the ideal we could aspire to.
"My Church would be what the 1971 Bishops' Synod called it — 'a model sodety'. Living the lessons it represents to other people. There is a feeling that it isn't enough of a role model at present: the scandal of the Vatican Bank, for instance, worries me, and why wasn't there an independent enquiry into the Marcinckus affair?. The only way to prod us into being good is.to lead from the front, not the rear. The Church should constantly ask: are we a bunch of individuals bound only by paying income tax, or are we a community? It should not just sit on the sidelines, hectoring."
In his perfect Republic, Bruce Kent would ensure that the study of religious traditions constitute a core part of the curriculum it is imperative that all students be involved in "an academic study to know what humanity over the centuries has thought about God and the Good Life."
But he maintains that he is opposed to what he terms "prayer by order": "I don't think you can convey religious inspiration through a syllabus. And certainly in terms of State funding, the same rights enjoyed by Catholic schools should be extended to Muslims."
I ask if there are any Westminster figures whose counsel he would seek who would be the chefs in his kitchen cabinet? "Tessa Blackstone, Cyril Townsend... I'd want to be able to hear what Roy Hattersley, or Ron Todd had to say about different issues."
Kent is worried by the continuing isolationist policy that Britain maintains: the Europhobes, he claims, are a nearsighted group whose navel-gazing can bring little good in its wake: "I'm a globalist you can't talk of global hunger on a national scale. Certain aspects of the European Union freedom of travel, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights are very positive developments. But a genuine internationalism is still lacking in our society. "
He is shocked by the low opinion the Western world seems to share about the United Nations an opinion rooted, he claims, in ignorance: "We have yer to work out the specifics of a role for the UN and this is because we have yet to understand the institution. We must combat this ignorance. The minimum I would want is a Minister in the House of Commons who would be responsible to Parliament for what goes on in the UN."
We rush through a few more topics the National Lottery? He would place a ceiling on the winnings; the NHS? It should be helped out, not shut down; prisons? They should be reformed.
The dream Republic — can it ever be?
I despair. But Kent grins: "You have to believe that people are basically good. If you do, then this is is not just a dream."